Death came down from the mountain. Death and despair. The green tide of bodies fled from every tunnel and gap in Dwarfhalls rest. They abandoned Tremborag’s fortress in a panic, both Tremborag’s tribe and the Goblin Lord’s army alike. They were no longer an army. They were a fleeing mass of people. They fled from her. The adventurer with the bow. The one whose face had been burned in their memory.
The Goblins, the monstrous race despised across the world, fled while the adventurers secured the mountain. Their leaders hid rather than confront Elia Arcsinger as she stared down, wielding the shining silver bow. And that was not the worst of it. Not by half.
Drum beats rolled across the forest as Reiss’ army fled around him. He could hear them, pounding in the distance. Not his army’s drums—these were a mockery of the same sound that had sent Humans running to hide behind their walls. A vast Human army was approaching. The first wave of riders and soldiers had already appeared on the horizon, a glittering line of polished weapons.
Humans. Reiss wanted to curse them, but he dared not attract the attention of the half-Elf searching for him high above. So he kept his head down and ran.
Snapjaw was hissing at him. She ducked low as she tried to push the Goblins in front of them aside, to get out of the central chamber of Tremborag’s mountain. Her eyes were wide with fear.
“What do! Kingslayer above! Kingslayer! And many Humans! This is bad-bad. Hunting death bad! Overwhelming death bad!”
The Hob’s command of the common tongue slipped in her fear and she spoke like a Goblin would. Reiss gritted his teeth, refusing to let the primal fear surging in him overwhelm him completely. He glanced back up at Elia Arcsinger. A Skill. She was using a Skill on the entire mountain! It had to be more than just the memory of what she had done.
Snapjaw was pointing. Eater of Spears had broken up the press of Goblins running for the exit. He made them clear a path with his huge body. He beckoned urgently to Reiss. The Goblin Lord nodded and ran. But not without purpose. As he reached the safety of an overhanging ledge of rock, Reiss turned and bellowed.
His voice was nearly lost amid the thunder of Goblins screaming and fleeing. But it was the first real sound, the only note of command amidst the chaos. The Goblins around Reiss stopped, and a bit of sanity reached through the all-encompassing fear. They turned to look, and like a wave of the living, other Goblins throughout the mountain turned to stare at Reiss.
And Elia Arcsinger’s head turned. Her eyes locked on Reiss and he felt a jolt of true terror strike him. But he dared a second longer. He held up one hand and made black magic cover his fist.
“Follow me! Retreat!”
It may have been the most redundant order in the history of leadership. And yet, it was important that Reiss had said it. It was an order every single Goblin in the mountain could get behind. And because he had spoken, the Goblins began fleeing in a more organized manner. The press of bodies scrambling towards the nearest exit broke up and Tremborag’s Goblins remembered the other exits from the mountain and ran for them. Reiss’ Goblins didn’t need an invitation to follow.
Snapjaw grabbed Reiss and drew him further back so that Arcsinger’s eyes couldn’t find him. The half-Elf hadn’t loosed an arrow. Was she waiting? Or had the distance been too far for her to hit him before he could duck away? Reiss’ heart thundered wildly. He turned and barked an order.
“Go! Snapjaw, Eater of Spears, run ahead! Find other lieutenants! Get Goblins to follow! Reform army and move south! Now!”
They stared at him. But Reiss had fought off the fear. He ran past them, still afraid, but determined.
“This is a chance! Tremborag has fled! His Goblins have no leaders!”
He pointed around at the milling Goblins. Some had black armor on, but many were Tremborag’s Mountain City tribe. They looked at Reiss, afraid, looking for guidance. Snapjaw and Eater of Spears understood at once. They sprinted ahead, shouting orders. And they were Hobs, leaders of Goblins. Those around them followed instinctively. Reiss saw the mass of Goblins change once more.
“I am the Goblin Lord! Reiss! Follow me!”
He bellowed and the Goblins around him surged after him. Reiss felt his heart jump in triumph. Disaster had struck the mountain and his army. They had lost Tremborag’s fortress. The idea of taking back the upper levels with so many Gold-rank teams and the Kingslayer herself was impossible. But if he could escape the mountain with most of Tremborag’s tribe and his forces?
The Humans were coming. Reiss had no idea how many there were. A vast army. Larger than his? He feared that might be so. But so long as he lived, so long as his people lived—Reiss closed his eyes for a moment and slowed his pace. He reached out and gave a silent order.
Across the mountain, in the forest surrounding it, the undead under his command turned. They looked north, towards the Human army and lurched forwards. Tens of thousands of undead moved past the fleeing Goblins. Buying them time. Reiss grimaced as he imagined losing all of the undead. But his master’s fury would be nothing compared to the many that would die if the Humans caught them. So he ran on, still grasping at victory. But the Humans were right on his heels.
“Find the Great Chieftain! Arcsinger will handle the Goblin Lord!”
The several teams of Gold-rank adventurers were moving through the mountain as the main force secured the center. A group of warriors and two mages stalked the tunnels. They weren’t run-of-the-mill adventurers either. It would be a mistake to call them [Warriors] and [Mages]. To Garen’s eye they were a [Shield Defender], a [Swordsman] of some kind, a [Pyromancer] and a [Light Mage] or whatever the class was called. He leaned back and covered his eyes as the mage in question threw a blinding ball of light which exploded and made the Goblins the adventurers were pursuing cry out.
Blinded, they didn’t stand a chance. Three Hobs and a score of Goblins went down to the warriors as the two mages burned and blinded the rest. Garen gritted his teeth. He’d been following the Gold-rank team for a while now. They were between him and his Redfang Warriors—pursuing his warriors, in fact. They were looking for Tremborag, but this team wasn’t shy about killing any Goblins they met.
Tremborag’s Goblins, actually. Any Goblin in black armor they left alone unless attacked. Garen didn’t know why. He gritted his teeth and gripped his red sword more tightly. Four Gold-ranks. They didn’t look like the best of the best, but their team was still far more than he could handle alone. The two warriors? Maybe, if Garen could get the other Goblins to jump into the fight. The [Pyromancer]? Definitely. Garen could sneak up and hopefully take her out. But that [Light Mage] worried Garen. A single spell and he’d be blind and dead in moments. He didn’t have a defense against that.
It had been a long time since Garen had been a Gold-rank adventurer. He remembered everything, but he’d lost most of the artifacts he’d had—broken them in life-or-death fights against monsters or in one case, simply misplaced one of his items and never found it again. Garen had an enchanted amulet and his sword on him—and a few high-quality potions. Not ideal against a Gold-rank team covered in magical gear.
But they’d run into the Redfangs soon enough. Garen gritted his teeth as the adventuring team burned another group of Goblins to death. He peeked around the corner again. The team was moving away. He’d step out, charge the [Light Mage] and gut the adventurer if he could. If they pursued him, he’d lose them amid the other Goblins. Garen took a steadying breath—
And saw the shadow move. He twisted and the shadow lunged towards him with a black blade. Garen snarled and used a Skill.
[Blur Dodge]! He accelerated out of the way of the blade and cut with his sword. Garen heard a curse and the [Rogue]’s concealment failed her. A Human woman appeared, holding a knife. She leapt back as Garen slashed at her. She was quick, but not enough. He cut her down the chest and heard her gasp in shock. Garen would have finished her, but he saw an arrow and ducked. The barbed arrow missed him by inches as the [Rogue] stumbled back, reaching for a healing potion.
“Minerva! Get back!”
A loud voice made Garen look up. He saw a [Ranger] aiming at him and two more [Rogues] right behind. He cursed and leapt back—
Right into the corridor where the other Gold-rank team was moving. They turned around in surprise as Garen appeared.
“Hey! Give us a hand here! I think this is a lieutenant!”
The [Ranger] called at the other team. They instantly turned and Garen found himself surrounded on both sides. The [Rogue] team advanced cautiously. They had knives and shortswords. Garen’s crimson blade had the reach on them. Aside from the [Ranger] with the bow, Garen was certain he could fight his way clear of this team. But the team behind him?
Death. Garen bared his teeth, trying to watch in two directions at once. The wounded [Rogue]—Minerva—rejoined the other three adventurers as they spread out to block him from escaping. Behind Garen, the group of warriors and mages called out.
“What’s with that Hob? He’s got enchanted gear?”
“Watch out! He nearly gutted Minerva!”
“Is he the Goblin Lord? Can’t be.”
The adventurer with the bow shook his head. His eyes focused on Garen.
“He’s not on the list. Take him down.”
Garen tensed. He could sense the two [Mages] behind him preparing spells but he refused to turn around. Turn and they’d blind him, he knew. He’d have to dodge whatever spells they cast from behind, fight his way forwards. If the [Swordsman] attacked him—
In the moment before the Gold-ranks attacked, before Garen could move, everyone’s minds were racing. The tension increased, as it did before high-level warriors fought. In a battle like this, a single Skill could mean someone’s death—or in Garen’s case, escape. He saw the team of four [Rogues] staring at him, and then the [Ranger]’s eyes narrowed.
“I know you. You’re Garen Redfang.”
Garen saw the other adventurers visibly react. The [Ranger] growled.
“Team killer. The Halfseekers deserved better. Take him—”
He raised his bow and Garen heard one of the mages mutter a spell. He twisted desperately as both arrow and a shower of flaming arrows flew and threw himself out of the way. The warriors and rogues charged Garen as he slammed into a wall. Garen raised his sword. Four adventurers at once! He saw the [Light Mage] raise his hand. Garen was looking his way! The [Mage]’s hand glowed—
And the wall exploded behind him. The [Mage] disappeared as a huge, green hand seized him and dragged him into the darkness. Garen heard a scream and a crunch.
The adventurers stopped. They turned their heads. A massive face appeared in the broken section of wall. A bestial visage thrust through the dust like something out of Human nightmares. Red eyes, yellowed teeth, dripping with saliva and blood. A body of muscle and fury. Tremborag roared as he charged out of his hiding place in the wall. He struck at the [Pyromancer] with a fist like a boulder. The [Shield Defender] caught the blow and the floor cracked beneath him. The adventurer groaned and Tremborag charged at Garen.
“Trespassers! Human mice! This is my mountain! My mountain!”
The Great Chieftain roared. He struck the [Rogue] menacing Garen from the right and the adventurer crashed into a wall. Garen spun. He cut twice. The first blow the [Swordsman] caught on his sword, but the second cut Minerva’s belly open. She dropped, clutching at her sword as Garen dueled the Gold-rank adventurer. He could hear both teams screaming.
“Dead gods! Back, back!”
“Get Minerva! [Flicker Step]!”
One of the [Rogues] grabbed their stricken comrade and hauled her away. The [Swordsman] backed up as he and the two other Gold-ranks retreated from Tremborag. The Great Chieftain paused and stared down at Garen. His eyes were red with battle fury. Garen blinked up at him. He had expected Tremborag to have fled already.
“Run, Redfang. Run! My mountain is lost. My tribe flees! But I will have them back. And I will hunt these adventurers. Hurt them! Run. Your business and mine is not over yet.”
Then he turned and pursued the group of four [Rogues], who were fleeing desperately down the tunnels. Garen saw Tremborag pursue them, running on all fours, his bestial form filling the corridor as he roared. Only when he was gone did Garen remember to breathe. And then he felt the pain.
Garen checked himself. He had a bad cut down one arm. The [Swordsman] had gotten him. And he had a slash right below his breast. A dagger. Garen didn’t know if the blade was poisoned. He cursed, grabbed a healing potion and splashed the precious liquid on his wounds. Then he ran after the team of warriors and mages. They were still headed in the direction of his Redfangs! Garen rounded the corridor—
And saw the old Goblin. He was sitting on the ground, on the back of the Human in armor. The [Shield Defender]. The Human was dead. He had to be—Humans didn’t let Goblins sit on them. And the slit throat was another clue. Garen stared at the dead Gold-rank in shock, and then at the other two bodies. The [Pyromancer] had died at once. His head lay on the ground next to his body, looking surprised and panicked. The [Swordsman] had fought—at least for a second. But the hole in his enchanted leather armor told Garen how the battle had gone. The old Goblin polished the rusty greatsword with a bit of cloth and looked up. He grinned at Garen.
“Redfang, eh? Good name for a Goblin! Good name. Poor for you. A not-Goblin doesn’t deserve a name like that. Or a tribe. Which is why you lost yours!”
He grinned, showing Garen a mouth full of yellowed teeth. Garen hesitated. He had seen this Goblin somewhere before. He didn’t know where, but his memory told him he’d seen the old Goblin’s face before. The Goblin had a grey beard. A beard, where most Goblins didn’t have any facial hair. He looked old, as old as any Goblin that Garen had ever met. But his body was lean and wiry. And his eyes—
Garen shifted. He gripped his blade, Redfang, with both hands and lowered his stance. The old Goblin grinned. He stood up and flicked his blade. The blood coating the tip splattered on the ground and Garen heard the air rip from the force of the blow. Garen Redfang glared at the old Goblin.
“Who are you?”
“They called me Greybeard here. Greybeard, the old, useless Goblin. Good name, though. Every Goblin needs a name. But decades ago they called me another name. Greydath of Blades. A worthy name for a Goblin. A better name than yours.”
Greydath lifted his greatsword. Garen tensed. His mind raced as he watched the old Goblin approach. He walked casually, but Garen’s instincts screamed at him not to make the first move. He felt like the old Goblin could block him from every angle. And he had the reach on him. Garen retreated. He was trying to think. That face! And that name! Where had he—
His eyes widened. Greydath? But he was d—
The first thrust of the greatsword came at Garen’s chest faster than an arrow. It nearly skewered Garen and only a desperate parry threw the tip of Greydath’s greatsword off target. The second thrust made Garen dodge back and he blocked the third with the flat of his blade. His arms shook and Garen nearly gaped. Greydath was fast and strong. The other Hob gave him no time to breathe, though. He thrust the greatsword twice more, slashing with the tip at Garen’s right arm and then his leg and then he brought the sword up and down in an overhand slash.
Garen didn’t try to block that one. He threw himself out of the way and saw the sword split the packed earth floor like it was butter. Garen charged with a roar, but Greydath pulled back his sword and blocked all six of Garen’s cuts.
[Frenzy Cuts]! Garen howled as he rained strikes down on Greydath, hitting harder each time. The old Goblin grunted as he blocked each sword cut, and then blinked. Garen’s red blade was glowing—
On the sword’s sixth and final blow, Garen activated the magic in it. His crimson blade glowed and the magic within turned the blade transparent. His sword passed through Greydath’s greatsword, seeking his right shoulder. Greydath blinked—and leaned back.
The sword missed. Garen overbalanced and nearly stumbled. He jumped back, raising the transparent blade. Greydath blinked at it and touched his greatsword. It was unharmed—the power of Garen’s infamous Redfang blade was to pass through unenchanted armor and anything that wasn’t living flesh. He had slain scores of his enemies with it. But his secret trick hadn’t worked on Greydath. The other Hob had avoided the sneak attack… with ease. Greydath lowered his greatsword as Garen breathed heavily, waiting. Then the old Hob grinned.
“Good trick! But only a trick. My turn.”
He raised his greatsword. In the corridor Greydath was at a disadvantage in that he couldn’t extend his greatsword without hitting the walls or ceiling. Or so Garen thought. But when the Hob slashed left, his sword cut through the wall and flashed at Garen’s chest impossibly quick! Garen blocked, felt his arms compress, felt the sword slam into his chest and then he felt himself flying. His feet left the ground and Garen gaped at Greydath as the force of the impact hurled him back several feet. When he landed the other Hob was already charging at him.
Left slash, overhand, thrust! Garen parried, attacked, dodged left, blocked, slashed with both hands, took a cut to his cheek, roared and punched with one hand—nearly lost the hand, blocked, fell back, slashed upwards, ducked, retreated three steps, struck and took a wound to the thigh—
He hadn’t fought this hard for years. He hadn’t been this desperate…Garen couldn’t think. All of his body and mind was thrust into fighting, keeping Greydath’s blade from touching him, fending the Hob off. He was losing! Greydath pressed him backwards down the corridor, grinning manically as Garen fought. The sounds of their blades meeting overwhelmed all other sound. They fought like that for hours, days, or so it felt. But possibly only a few minutes had passed before Garen saw Greydath lower his sword. The Hob stopped, panting, covered in sweat. Greydath grinned at him and laughed.
“Good! Haven’t done that in years. You were a Gold-rank adventurer, weren’t you? Strong. They must have loved you and feared you. Your team. Didn’t they? Is that why you killed them?”
Garen didn’t reply. He was trying to get his breathing back. His mind raced, but all he could ask was the obvious.
“What do you want?”
Greydath bared his teeth. It was not a smile. Garen felt a cold shiver as the former Goblin Lord lifted his blade. How could he be alive? He tensed, but Greydath just rested the flat of his blade on his shoulder.
“What do I want? To see how strong Garen Redfang is. And the answer? Very strong. As strong as the coward, nearly. If you two fought and you had a bit more magic, would you win? You are stronger than the Goblin Lord. With the blade. Little else, though. You’d be a fine warrior in any tribe. You are the poorest of Chieftains.”
His words made no sense. But they annoyed Garen all the same. He growled.
“I’m not here…to fight, old one. Leave!”
Garen hesitated. He couldn’t. Greydath grinned at him.
“A poor leader. A failure who can’t keep his tribe fed. Can’t keep their loyalty. But strong. Strength would be enough. But you are no Goblin. You betrayed your tribe. Your first tribe. That’s what they called you. Even the Humans know you. Team killer. Tribe killer. Not Goblin.”
The words struck Garen like arrows. He gritted his teeth, but didn’t reply. Greydath shook his head.
“Enough. A not-Goblin isn’t enough to challenge a Lord. Not at all. If you changed, maybe. But what did you do? You stuck with the coward, while the child ran away with your tribe. And the slave came and you lost your tribe again. Look around, Redfang. They desert you each time. And why? Because you are no Chieftain. Not worthy. Not a Goblin.”
For the third time he said it. If it had been anyone else, anyone in the entire world, Garen would have killed them then and there. But Greydath he couldn’t kill. So Garen stood where he was.
“What. Do. You. Want?”
“Nothing from you. Not now. I just wanted to see what would happen. The coward’s tribe is broken. The slave runs, but the Humans play games. And they brought her. Look.”
Greydath pointed. Garen risked a glance and realized that the Hob had pushed him back towards the central chamber. Elia Arcsinger was still standing above, watching the last of the Goblins fleeing the mountain. Greydath bared his teeth again. Only this time, he didn’t look amused. A flash of fury crossed his face, and then, disconcertingly, it turned into a grin.
“Good to see her. Good to remember! Good test for all of you. Especially the slave. I’d stay and greet her, but she knows me. And there’s something strange to the south. So I go. I’ll see you and the others soon.”
Garen had no idea what he meant. He watched as Greydath turned, and then the old Hob seemed to think of something. He looked around.
“But before I go…maybe a present for her, eh?”
He reached for something. He’d picked up the dead [Swordsman]’s blade when Garen hadn’t been looking. Garen moved backwards as Greydath advanced. The old Hob grinned at him. Then he stared up at Elia Arcsinger. His arm tensed and Garen braced himself. But the old Goblin wasn’t aiming at him. He turned and hurled the sword straight at Elia, hundreds of feet above like it was a spear.
The sword flew like an arrow. It shot up towards Elia, flashing in the torchlight. At first she didn’t see it. But then one of the adventurers—the other, younger half-Elf spotted the blade. She screamed one word.
And the Kingslayer turned. The half-Elf’s eyes widened as she spotted the enchanted blade flying at her. Her bow rose. She loosed the arrow as the other adventurers cried out. The shining arrow met the enchanted sword in the air and Garen heard a terrible, ringing screech of sound from above.
Pieces of metal rained down, fragments of the enchanted sword blown to bits. Elia Arcsinger lowered her arm and the other adventurers stared around wildly. They pointed down and shouted.
“There! That Goblin!”
Garen started. He looked around. Greydath had vanished. The adventurers above wavered. Then he heard a voice.
A [Witch] standing on a bridge high above pointed. A giant fireball flew downwards. Garen shouted and ran. He dove for the safety of the corridor and felt something hot kick him in the back. His ears rang. He scrambled further into the tunnel as more spells and arrows blasted the ground around him. Garen ran back into the tunnel. He rounded the bend, saw the three dead adventurers—and then a group of Goblins. Garen nearly cut them down until he saw the red paint on their arms and faces.
One of Garen’s Redfang Warriors shouted in relief. The Goblin looked wide-eyed at Garen’s injured body, and then at the Gold-ranks.
“Chieftain kill adventurers? Alone?”
Garen hesitated. He looked around. Greydath was gone. Garen cursed the old Hob. What had he been doing here? Had he been testing Garen? What did he mean by the slave and the coward? The child?
Not-Goblin. He had called Garen that. Lost in thought, Garen blinked as he realized his Redfangs were staring at him. He looked at the dead adventurers.
“No. Loot bodies. Get armor—artifacts! We leave mountain! We ride!”
The Goblins hurried over to the bodies and began looting the Gold-rank adventurers. Garen bent and hurriedly peeled the leather armor off the [Swordsman], grimacing at the blood. Enchanted gear! At least that was something. He stood up and felt the back of his neck prickle. The adventurers were coming after him. More Gold-ranks. They’d find the dead adventurers, blame him for it, no doubt. He pointed and his warriors ran.
Out of the mountain. Garen found himself pushing past the last of the fleeing Goblins, ducking spells as the adventurers spotted him. He wasn’t concerned about escaping—they were far overhead and even the most dangerous spells missed him. [Mages] had bad aim. No, he was worried. About what Greydath had said. About the attack.
Something was wrong. Garen’s crimson eyes narrowed as he stared back up at the adventurers. They were being far too passive, even raining spells down on his position as they were. They could have been throwing [Fireball] spells this entire time, killed thousands of Reiss’ and Tremborag’s forces. But they hadn’t. Why hadn’t Elia Arcsinger moved? Was her only target the Goblin Lord? If so—
He didn’t like it one bit. Garen ran, whistling for his Carn Wolf and praying it would hear him amidst the chaos. He had to find his Redfangs, rally enough Goblin warriors. This wasn’t over. Not yet! Garen cursed the Humans with every step. He hated losing. And he hated traps. All of this felt like one big trap. Inside of another trap.
The Goblin Lord fled the mountain. But to the south and west, another [Lord] stood on the ground, perfectly at ease. He had not fled anywhere. Indeed, Lord Tyrion Veltras looked perfectly at ease as he stood in Riverfarm. His [Knights] and mounted [Soldiers] were pursuing the last of Rags’ Redfang warriors as the relieved folk of Riverfarm watched. Tyrion seemed content to watch. He was speaking to a [Mage] on horseback, and only when another [Message] was relayed did his brow crease.
“How many casualties? Four?”
The [Mage] nodded.
“Yes, Lord Veltras. Apparently, two of the hunter teams encountered trouble while attempting to locate the Great Chieftain. They were ambushed and one team was completely killed. The giant Hob—er, Tremborag—killed one, and it is believed another Hobgoblin slew the other three.”
“Yes, Lord Veltras. Garen Redfang. He was identified by adventurers on the scene.”
Lord Tyrion frowned.
“Have a report readied. I will view it when I return to the main camp. For now—”
He glanced at his soldiers. They were pursuing the Goblins. The Redfangs mounted on the Carn Wolves were fleeing east as fast as they could. Tyrion eyed a pair of Goblins clinging to their mounts. Rags was trying to hold up Redscar, who was nearly falling out of his saddle. The [Lord] raised a hand.
“Pull the soldiers back. Let the Goblins run.”
“Yes, Lord Veltras.”
One of the soldiers raised a horn and blew twice sharply. The riders turned and immediately halted their pursuit of the Goblins.
“What are you doing?”
Tyrion looked around. Laken Godart turned from talking with an older man who looked like a farmer and another [Lady]. Though his back had been turned, and though his eyes were still closed, he strode instantly towards the returning soldiers.
“Follow them! That Chieftain cannot be allowed to leave! Don’t let the Goblins escape!”
His voice snapped through the air and took hold of the soldiers. They turned back again and half of the villagers started forwards at a run. Even some of the nobles moved. Tyrion did not. His brows snapped together. He raised his voice and shouted with a battle commander’s voice.
His soldiers paused again. They started and looked back shamefaced. Tyrion raised a fist and his soldiers rode back towards him. The villagers had likewise paused. Tyrion Veltras strode towards Laken.
“Your majesty, I will thank you to not command my men.”
“The Goblins are escaping. The Chieftain of the tribe that attacked my people is running!”
Tyrion’s eyebrows rose. He glanced back at the fleeing Goblins and shook his head slightly.
“Do not worry, your majesty. I will pursue the Goblins shortly. My men and I are capable of catching the Goblins no matter how quickly they flee.”
“Why not catch them now?”
“I do not deem it necessary.”
Laken folded his arms. Tyrion frowned and stroked his beard. He glanced at his aide and attempted to moderate his tone. For Tyrion, that meant there was a bit less of a snap to his cold voice.
“Emperor Laken. If you wish to pursue the Goblins, by all means send whatever forces you possess. But I have given you my assurance that I will safeguard your lands and your people. However, I must coordinate with my main forces which are currently besieging another force of Goblins.”
“All of this has to do with leaving the Goblins here alone how?”
Tyrion did not quite look around, but his glance to the left pinpointed a woman standing in the crowd. Sacra, dressed in her maid outfit, stood out in the crowd of Riverfarm’s villagers.
“A discussion for a more private setting, Emperor Laken. I look forward to it. Give me two hours time to reconnect with my soldiers to the east. I will handle the Chieftain at that time as well.”
Laken Godart frowned, but Tyrion had given him very little to object to. He hadn’t the soldiers to follow the Goblins, as both men knew. He scratched at his hair with one finger.
“Your army. Yes…there’s a good number of them. All far to the east of here. You think you can reach them in two hours?”
If Lord Tyrion was surprised by Laken’s knowledge, he didn’t show it.
“I have the Skills to move quickly. I will reach them and return in that period of time. In truth, I had intended to arrive with all my forces to provide escort to the nobility gathered here to their lands. The Goblin presence here necessitated splitting my command.”
Laken’s brows drew together.
“I see. I’m sure the nobles will be pleased to have your escort. However, that may be a problem.”
“Indeed? How so?”
“No one is leaving Riverfarm. Not yet. Your men are free to go of course, Lord Tyrion. I doubt I could stop you. But the nobility here will submit to questioning before they leave my empire.”
The nobles, who’d gathered around Lord Tyrion in relief turned to Laken, suddenly confused. Lady Bevia, raised her eyebrows.
“Emperor Laken? This is quite unexpected. What sort of questioning do you mean?”
Laken turned his head, his closed eyes seeming to ‘look’ at Lady Bevia. The effect was unsettling—one instinctively felt that he was aware of everything around him, yet his eyes told the opposite story.
“Someone ordered my [General] to assault the Goblins. Someone abducted my mage—knocked him out and then impersonated him. I will find out who. And until I do, no one in this village will leave, noble or otherwise.”
The nobility fell silent, as did the villagers around Laken. Tyrion frowned. It was another of the nobles, Lord Tourant, who coughed nervously and spoke.
“We did hear about that, ah, your majesty. But surely you wouldn’t implicate one of us—”
His voice delicately indicated he was referring to the nobles, who were, of course, beyond suspicion of any crimes, himself included.
“—of such a heinous deed, would you?”
This time Tyrion watched closely as Laken turned his head with unerring accuracy towards Lord Tourant. The [Lord] had met those blinded before and Laken was too precise, too…accurate in his movements. An intriguing puzzle. The [Emperor] gave Tourant a ghost of a smile.
“Of course I wouldn’t dare to question your integrity, Lord Tourant. This is a precaution, nothing more. It wouldn’t do for the perpetrator to slip away in the confusion, would it?”
“Oh, no. Of course not.”
Tourant relaxed. A hair too soon as it turned out. Laken turned to the old farmer standing next to him.
“But just in case, I feel that we should make a complete investigation. Of everyone. With magic. And when I find the criminal who started all this—Mister Prost?”
The man bowed precisely. Tyrion eyed him. Not a [Farmer], then? No, he had the hands and look of one. But he had the air of a trained majordomo. Another point of interest. Laken grinned, but without any humor.
“When we find the criminal, I have a mind to execute justice on the spot. So…find me an axe. It doesn’t have to be sharp.”
The people went silent as Prost nodded slowly. They looked at Laken, and then the nobility looked towards Tyrion as one. They didn’t quite ask him to intervene, but the suddenly nervous expressions on a good half of the noble’s faces said far more than words could. Lord Tyrion glanced at Laken.
“You plan to behead the criminal who sabotaged your command? What if one of the nobility were responsible? Hypothetically, of course.”
Laken turned back to Tyrion. His head tilted up. The air around him, already tense, grew a bit more intense. The atmosphere around Tyrion froze over as the two looked towards each other, though Laken never opened his eyes.
“Hypothetically? I would consider that an act of war. I might not behead who was responsible right then and there if they were…hypothetically…a noble, but I wouldn’t rule it out, either.”
Something invisible pushed in the air between the two. Tyrion didn’t draw back, although the soldiers around him were wincing and shifting uncomfortably. He slowly stroked his beard, and then, to the surprise of everyone, nodded.
“Very appropriate. Of course I will support any investigation to the fullest. If you would like me to lend you a few of my [Mages] to cast truth detection spells, I would gladly provide them.”
His reply caught Laken off guard. The [Emperor] wavered and the static feeling in the air vanished. He frowned.
Tyrion nodded, cool as an iceberg in the winter.
“If you have a mage of your own capable of casting the spell, I will submit to any test you wish, Emperor Laken. I have nothing to hide. The truth will out. If there is such a traitor in your kingdom, the axe is the least they deserve. And if, by some incredible chance, a peer of the realm was found to have resorted to such underhanded trickery…”
He shrugged fractionally and flicked is gaze towards the nobles of Izril, who were giving him very unhappy looks.
“I will leave it to your discretion. Although I would ask for clemency if a member of the fair sex were to be found to be guilty. Of either gender, I suppose. A more formal accusation would be more appropriate. Were you to desire it.”
“I appreciate the suggestion.”
Laken looked like he appreciated nothing of the kind. His head turned from Tyrion to Lady Bevia, suspicion once again creasing his brow. Tyrion noticed the gesture and nodded.
“Ah. I see your confusion, your majesty. In the interest of transparency, I did receive a number of [Messages] informing me of the Goblin presence in your lands. From Lady Bevia, among others.”
He nodded at Lady Bevia, who gave him a charming, and slightly vexed smile as everyone stared at her. Tyrion went on, undeterred.
“My war camp was also found by a desperate [Knight] in the service to Lady Bethal Walchaís who had escaped the Goblins in question. But that was the extent of my knowledge of this affair. My reasons for seeking you out were of a practical nature, Emperor. But I swear on the honor of my house that neither I nor any of my subordinates took any part in this…unpleasantness. I will swear that on any truth spell you wish, in any framing of words.”
Laken paused. He tilted his head back, and then nodded. Now he seemed somewhat amused.
“It seems I have no reason to distrust your word, Lord Tyrion. I will hold you to that promise. Later. For now, I will interview those in Riverfarm. I think the answers I find will be…illuminating. Possibly messy. You said two hours from now you’ll return?”
“Indeed. Please excuse me.”
Lord Tyrion nodded to Laken. The [Emperor] stepped back and Tyrion looked pointedly at his aide.
“Reform the company and begin riding back towards Lord Pellmia. I will catch you on the road.”
The aide nodded and spurred her horse. Tyrion whistled and his warhorse trotted towards him through the crowd of people, forcing them to move aside or be knocked flat. He put one foot in the stirrups and paused.
“Ah. Lady Bevia.”
The old woman was making her way towards him, letting her nephew and guards elbow everyone else out of the way. She smiled at Tyrion, although her smile had an edge to it.
“As straight as an arrow as ever, aren’t you, Tyrion? Then again, I’ve seen arrows with more give than you. Thank you for throwing us all upon the mercy of Emperor Laken.”
Tyrion swung himself into the saddle and looked down at Bevia. His lips twitched, and he looked slightly amused.
“I spoke my mind as I saw fit. If you are innocent, you have nothing to fear, Lady Bevia.”
The old [Lady] cackled.
“Who is truly innocent? Don’t worry—it wasn’t me who made a mess of that young man’s army. I would hate to see one of the nobility go to the chopping block for that trick, though. It would make things…complicated.”
Tyrion shook his head.
“Trickery has its place. But leading thousands of innocent soldiers to their death? That is a cowardly, pathetic act.”
“Mm. That’s practically a warm hug among the Reinharts, as I’m sure you know. And half the peers of the realm wouldn’t bat an eyelash if they thought they could get away with something like that.”
“This one would. I am relieved to see you are well, Bevia. However, I have pressing business to attend to. If we might converse another time? I will return to speak with the emperor. You may find me after that.”
Bevia waved a wrinkled hand.
“Yes, yes. You go and play your war games. I’ll stay and convince my peers not to run for it. I do believe young Laken means what he says about the axe. Until we meet again. Bring me back my [Mage], would you?”
Tyrion didn’t respond. He kicked his horse in the flanks and took off, dodging past the Mossbear who ambled past him into the village. It was a mark of Tyrion’s personality that he didn’t allow himself to stare at the green bear who whuffed and sniffed at a fallen body. The [Lord] sped out of the village, moving twice as fast as someone on a horse should. It looked like he and his horse were flying rather than galloping, so fast were the legs of his horse moving. Tyrion caught up to the group of [Knights] and [Riders] within minutes of leaving the village. He slowed and they sped up to match his furious pace. They raced eastwards down the road.
“Lord Veltras! Another report from Dwarfhalls Rest!”
Tyrion snapped. The [Mage] galloped next to him and shouted. She spoke in an awkward manner—taking care not to bite her tongue as the surging motion of her mount carried her up and down.
“The Goblins are in full retreat! They are moving southbound—not scattering! It appears the Goblin Lord or another leader has taken command! Several parts of the army have reported contact with undead! Lord Byres’ command is entrenched in battle with thousands of zombies, ghouls, and a number of advanced undead!”
“Send him reinforcements. Move forwards slowly. Do not break encirclement. Have the main body of the army move towards the Goblins as soon as they arrive. What of Lord Pellmia?”
“He reported engaging the Goblins, but has not sent another [Message] yet, Lord Veltras!”
Tyrion turned his attention back to the road. At this furious pace it would be less than an hour before he reached Laken’s army and the Goblins fighting there. However—Tyrion glanced over his shoulder and saw that several of the riders in his company were lagging behind.
They had been riding furiously all day. Even with stamina restoring Skills, there was a limit to how far his men could move. Or rather, their horses. Lord Tyrion raised a hand.
“[Knights]! Fall back to Riverfarm! Anyone who deems their mount unfit will join them!”
The riders in heavier armor immediately slowed, and a handful of the other riders fell back as well. Tyrion checked his mount. The stallion he was riding looked as if it could ride another hundred miles with ease. He smiled and patted it along the back of the barding on its neck.
His aide called out. Tyrion looked up. His gaze spotted a group on the road ahead of him. Goblins. The very same Goblins that had been attacking Riverfarm, in fact. They were desperately riding their Carn Wolves down the road and when they heard the galloping they turned and shouted in fear and alarm. Immediately they broke off, riding madly towards the woods.
“Should we pursue—?”
The aide raised her hand and her fingertips glowed with magic. Tyrion shook his head. He calmly eyed the group. Less than two thirds remained and they were almost all wounded. Tyrion’s gaze picked out two Goblins in the bunch. The small Goblin with the black crossbow, and, riding beside her, the Goblin with the scar on his face whom he’d wounded. Tyrion saw both turn. He spoke loudly.
He rode ahead, ignoring the Goblins who found themselves falling behind Tyrion and his men. He turned his gaze back to the road ahead—and then heard another warning shout. Tyrion turned and saw the Goblin with the red scar charging at him.
Redscar’s Carn Wolf howled as he dashed forwards, catching up to Tyrion’s insane pace for a moment. The Redfang leader’s shoulder was healed, though his face was still deathly pale. He raised his sword as he rode at Tyrion, howling. The aide raised her hand, but Tyrion stopped her. He didn’t slow as Redscar drew alongside him.
The Goblin slashed at Tyrion with his enchanted blade, aiming at Tyrion’s stomach, his arms, his legs, his warhorse. His blade blurred with speed.
[Flurry Strikes]! Tyrion’s eyes narrowed. His shield rose and he blocked. The clanging of blade meeting metal became an unceasing drumbeat. Redscar snarled in disbelief as Tyrion continued to block. His arm slowed as he desperately tried to score a hit and then his Carn Wolf slowed. The large wolf gasped for breath and despite Redscar’s urging, slowed its pace more and more, pulling the Goblin out of reach of Tyrion. Redscar fell behind, shouting helplessly as Tyrion kept galloping.
“Not bad. For a Goblin.”
Tyrion lowered his shield. He glanced over his shoulder at Redscar whom the other Goblins were catching up to. His aide stared back at the Goblin with distaste.
“Was that the Chieftain, Lord Veltras?”
“Possibly. I should have asked the Emperor which Goblin it was. No matter. We have two marked.”
The little Goblin was pointing at Tyrion’s back. A fiery arrow shot towards Tyrion. The aide waved her hand and the fiery arrow vanished. They continued ahead, leaving the Goblins behind.
Within the hour, Tyrion reached the site of the battle unfolding between Pyrite and Wiskeria’s army. Or rather, what had been the battle. He slowed as his mount reached the site of churned mud and bodies. Tyrion glanced at the fallen, counting the Humans who’d died at a glance. Then he saw how the tide had shifted, and where ranks of Goblins had fallen, first in droves, and then in scattered groups from behind. He rode towards the first group he saw on the field, a [Lord] wearing enchanted plate and a young female [Knight] dressed in borrowed armor.
Lord Pellmia and Welca Caveis were both talking to someone standing on the ground. A [Witch] of all people, wounded lightly on her arm. She was pointing at the distant city. Tyrion glanced at it. Goblins were clustered on the walls, armed with crossbows. They were staring warily at the large force of Humans on horseback gathered just out of range. The city had multiple holes in its wall and was taking fire.
As Tyrion watched, a huge boulder soared over his head and crashed into the city. At the same time, a much smaller stone was launched back towards the Human army. It would have struck a group of riders, but one of them, another [Mage], pointed up and blocked the falling stone with a shield of magic.
Lord Pellmia exclaimed the instant he saw Tyrion. He rode towards him, smoothing his mustache importantly. Pellmia was a broader man in the shoulder and gut than Tyrion, but he still cut an impressive sight on his white stallion. Tyrion nodded to him.
“Lord Pellmia. How goes it?”
“Well! We scattered those pestilential Goblins on the first charge. It wasn’t hard to send them scurrying back to the city. It’s been cleanup ever since. Half of the army was fleeing for the hills and the rest was wounded. I’ve been rationing out healing potions among the wounded and searching for survivors since. I would have assaulted the city, but the damn Goblins have a lot of pikes and crossbows! I’ve been letting them sit while that er, trebuchet keeps pounding them. Damndest thing! Never thought I’d see a weapon like that sitting about in the middle of nowhere!”
He laughed, and then motioned towards the two women.
“Lady Caveis here has been searching for her missing companion. Sir Kerrig. Apparently he rode south. You didn’t happen to see him? And this is the [General] of the army. General Wiskeria. A, ah, [Witch].”
The bespectacled [Witch] bowed towards Lord Tyrion. He blinked at her and then shifted his attention to Welca.
“We did meet your companion in Riverfarm, Lady Caveis.”
“Sir Kerrig? Is he well? Is he unharmed?”
Welca looked worried and relieved. Tyrion nodded.
“Both. We arrived in time to prevent the Goblins from sacking the village. I encountered their ruler. Emperor Laken Godart.”
“So there is an [Emperor] in Riverfarm? Five Houses, that’s another wonder!”
Pellmia whistled. He glanced speculatively at Wiskeria and nodded to the Goblins.
“I suppose he wants these Goblins gone, does he? Give the order and we’ll charge the gates, Lord Veltras. It won’t be pretty, but once we’re past those pikes it should be a rout!”
“Lord Veltras? Lord Veltras!”
The [Witch], or rather, [General] protested loudly. She bowed hurriedly towards him as Tyrion nodded.
“Forgive me. But I keep telling Lord Pellmia that attacking the city would not be wise! He took the Goblins off-guard, but they have incredibly strong warriors! They have hundreds of Hobs and their regular Goblins use twenty-foot long pikes! Any cavalry that charges them will be impaled! Not to mention their crossbows!”
“Nonsense! We have [Knights] who can break their lines.”
Pellmia dismissed Wiskeria’s complaint with a wave. Tyrion frowned at Pellmia, but smoothed his face before the other man could notice. He spoke calmly, nodding at Wiskeria.
“I’d prefer not to take a single casualty if possible, Lord Pellmia. Driving the Goblins from the city is a priority, but I would prefer avoiding a pitched battle in the city.”
The other [Lord] sighed dramatically.
“As you say, Veltras. Still, not a bad job of it, eh? We arrived just in the nick of time! Another minute and the Goblin Chieftain would have cut a hole right through the army!”
“You say the Chieftain’s here?”
That caught Tyrion’s attention. He glanced at Lord Pellmia and gestured towards his aide.
“Fetch me an artifact enchanted with [Appraisal]. I wish to sort this out. Pellmia, I have marked two Goblins as possible candidates. Yourself?”
“One. The fat one with the enchanted battleaxe. Over there. Lady Caveis claims that he might be the Chieftain.”
Lord Tyrion frowned at the monocle his aide handed him. He lifted it with his gauntleted fingers and peered through it with a frown. He searched the walls of the city for the Goblin until he spotted him. A fat Hob with an enchanted battleaxe, as Pellmia had said.
“Lady Caveis, you were captive of the Goblins for a period of time. Was this the Chieftain to your knowledge?”
Welca jumped. She stared at Pyrite.
“I uh—yes. He…might be the Chieftain. I can’t be sure. They all look the same. I advised Pellmia he could be the one.”
“Not hard to figure out. Dangerous, that fat Hob. He was cutting down [Soldiers] like flies when we charged him. Nearly got one of my [Knights], but we drove him back!”
Tyrion squinted at the distant Hob. He frowned as he slowly read and then nodded.
“He certainly has enough [Chieftain] levels. However—ah. There they are.”
His head turned. Behind him, a group of Goblins appeared in the distance. They spotted the army of soldiers, Tyrion’s five thousand or so cavalry, and then the Goblins in the city. They rode left, making a mad dash for the safety of the walls. Tyrion saw his aide calling back the riders who rode to intercept. As the Goblins fled, Tyrion once again picked out the Goblin with the red scar and the small Goblin. This time his eyebrows rose.
“The little Goblin has nearly as many in [Chieftain] as the fat Hob. The warrior…none. Interesting. He appears to have a Goblin commander class. [Raid Leader]. A powerful combatant then, but not of interest besides that. Mark the small Goblin and the large Hob, Lord Pellmia. Circulate their descriptions.”
“A difficult task given that all Goblins look like the other. At least these two have their size to tell them apart. How tiresome. Shall we disperse the rest of the mob now, Lord Veltras? Those trebuchets are fun to watch, but the Goblins don’t seem particularly deterred by the rocks. They have a few of their own. Annoying things.”
“Indeed. Give me a moment to plan the attack, Lord Pellmia.”
The man rode backwards and Welca did likewise. Tyrion dismounted and saw the [Witch] hurry up to him. She hesitated and tried to bow awkwardly again.
“My apologies, Lord Veltras. You’re the commander of this army, correct? Thank you for coming to our aid.”
“It was my pleasure, General Wiskeria. How many losses did your army take?”
Wiskeria tugged the brim of her hat down.
“Many. We’d have been slaughtered completely without Lord Pellmia’s arrival. As it is, there are thousands dead. I don’t know what Laken—excuse me. Did I hear that Riverfarm was attacked? Laken—Emperor Laken, his majesty. Is he safe?”
“He is. He claims that the order to attack the Goblins did not come from him. He is investigating the matter. I will return to Riverfarm within the hour. It only remains to root out these Goblins.”
Wiskeria gaped at Tyrion in horror. When she managed to recover she stared at the city apprehensively.
“Do you mean to assault the city? As I told Lord Pellmia, that was disastrous for our army. Even your soldiers might suffer if they tried it.”
“That was my analysis as well. Tell me, are you a trained [General], Miss Wiskeria? Pellmia claims you are a [Witch].”
“I’m both. I—just obtained my [General] class. I was never trained. I don’t know that I belong in the position. Certainly not after a disaster like this.”
She stared numbly around the battlefield soaked with blood. Tyrion shook his head. He paused and searched for comforting words. He found none and spoke abruptly.
“Every leader fails. This battle was poorly chosen to begin with. Learn from your errors and continue to level. That you were able to lead an army at all without formal command training is impressive. Tell me, how did you obtain your class?”
Wiskeria hesitated. She bit her lip, and then answered slowly.
“From his majesty. It was…a gift.”
She eyed Tyrion from under her pointed hat. He nodded slowly.
“A gift from an [Emperor]. May I assume the trebuchets are also his devising?”
“You might. May I assume that you are an ally of his majesty, Lord Veltras?”
“You may. And I intend to make good on my promise to him. Jericha?”
He turned his head. His aide, the Human woman and [Mage], rode forwards. She had naturally grey hair, although she was only a little younger than Tyrion herself.
“Lord Veltras? Your orders?”
“Gather the [Mages] under my command. Have them form a link and assault the city. I want the Goblins driven out. Lord Pellmia is to take a wedge of the highest-level [Knights] and any [Lords] who wish to participate and assault the gates on my signal.”
“By your order.”
Jericha rode away, calling out orders. Wiskeria watched the soldiers riding forwards and a group of around twenty [Mages] dismount.
“A link? But if they move into crossbow range—”
She glanced apprehensively at the walls. Tyrion shook his head.
“There is more than one way to unseat an enemy from a fortress, General Wiskeria. This trick would not work on a Drake city. But a Human one without enchanted walls—observe.”
He gave a few orders and stepped back as the [Mages] formed a small circle just outside of the range of the Goblins. Tyrion opened his saddlebags and offered his stallion a feed bag. His horse ate hungrily as Tyrion watched the city with one eye. Wiskeria saw the twenty mages plus Jericha link hands. She saw the mana surge around them. To her eyes they shone like a small sun, and in the air between them a glowing orb appeared. White hot fire gathered into an orb, a spell which blazed heat. The Goblins on the wall stared at the ominous spell and looked at each other. By the time the [Siege Fireball] shot from the gathered mages the Goblins were already fleeing the walls into the city.
The thump and roar of sound appeared a few seconds after the blinding flash. When Wiskeria’s vision cleared she saw the gates of the city were blown inwards and the walls around the city—already damaged—were nearly completely caved in. Lord Pellmia whooped and raced towards the city with a group of a hundred or so [Knights] and [Lords], ignoring the crossbow bolts that glanced off his enchanted armor.
“A rout. Not that the Goblins intended to keep the city in any case.”
Tyrion calmly raised two fingers and pointed. Two thousand more soldiers raced after Pellmia’s band through the breach. Wiskeria heard the sounds of fighting in the distance, but didn’t hear the roar she expected. She saw a stream of Goblins pouring from the city’s west side, fleeing Pellmia’s soldiers.
“They were planning on running the entire time?”
“They would have tried sealing the gaps in the wall otherwise. Goblins are predictable. They leave escape routes in almost every situation. The Chieftain—whichever one it is—will have decided to flee rather than fight. But they will put up a token resistance. Perhaps even—ah. Here it comes.”
Another group raced out of the city. Goblins, mounted on Carn Wolves. Goblin elites, although the word made Tyrion’s lips twist. He calmly mounted his stallion as Wiskeria stared apprehensively at the group of Goblins. They were charging at Tyrion by the hundreds.
“They’re attacking you, Lord Tyrion! Should we retreat?”
She looked around wildly for Tyrion’s escort, but there was no one close by. Tyrion shook his head. He drew his sword and kicked his stallion forwards.
“No. This band is trying to buy time. They will disperse once their leader falls.”
He stared at Redscar. The Goblin was locked onto him, howling with fury. Tyrion kicked his stallion forwards. He rode at the Redfang Warriors. Alone. His horse accelerated as Wiskeria shouted something after him. Tyrion didn’t listen. He surged in his saddle, his sword bared, his shield raised. No lance for him this time. His gaze narrowed and he saw Redscar draw ahead of the pack. Tyrion’s voice was meant for him and him alone.
“The truth about Goblins is that they’re predictable. They do the same things. Over and over. The truth about Goblins is that they are a tool. Manipulable. And ultimately—”
He lifted his shield. An arrow glanced off the metal. Tyrion swung and one of the Redfang Warriors fell from his saddle, his side slashed open. The [Lord] slashed again and a Carn Wolf fell, the Goblin warrior riding it howling in grief and fear. Redscar screamed and slashed at Tyrion’s unguarded head. The [Lord] sighed.
He cut through the air in an arc. Redscar’s blade slashed across Tyrion’s shield. Tyrion’s blade caught the Goblin and spun him in his saddle. The Goblin fell onto his Carn Wolf’s front. He’d dodged the blade—for the second time, which was impressive. But his entire side was laid open, and at least four of his ribs were cut open. He gasped as his Carn Wolf tried to turn. Tyrion turned his horse, cutting down Redfang Warriors who tried to block him. He bore down on Redscar. The Goblin lifted the blade. Tyrion raised his. He brought it down and the little Goblin riding towards him pulled the trigger. Her crossbow twanged and Tyrion’s shield snapped up.
The crossbow bolt slammed into Tyrion’s shield. He turned his head. Rags flicked fire into Tyrion’s warhorse’s face, making it rear. The [Lord] saw the little Goblin push her Carn Wolf in front of Redscar as a huge Hob caught the fainting Goblin. Pyrite turned and ran with Redscar, letting a Goblin child clinging to the back of his head frantically pour a healing potion over Redscar’s chest. Rags remained. She faced down Tyrion, barking orders as the Redfang Warriors surged around her, pulling back in confusion.
The little Goblin had a shortsword in hand. Not an enchanted blade. And the fire magic she called into her other palm was barely more than Tier 2. Tyrion’s longsword gleamed with ancient magic that had infused it for thousands of years. His armor, shield, and weapon were all heirlooms of the Veltras family. He was a foremost [Lord] of Izril with decades of combat behind him. But the little Goblin faced him without fear.
She had a spark in her eyes. A glimmer of comprehension, of understanding. Tyrion felt a jolt of surprise. She knew. Rags raised her sword and struck at Tyrion’s side with a quick slash. Compared to Redscar’s strikes her blade was slow, but it still cut with deadly force. Tyrion blocked the blade with his sword.
Rags shot fire at his face. The [Lord] adjusted his shield and blocked the stream of fire. Undeterred, Rags shifted her aim and tried to blast his warhorse in the eyes with flame. Tyrion turned his horse sideways. The flames glanced harmlessly over the warhorse’s barding and Tyrion’s armored leggings. Rags growled and threw a [Firefly] spell at Tyrion’s face. He cut the spell in half. She slashed across his side. He blocked the blade again.
The two stared at each other. Tyrion’s sword was light and balanced in his hand. He made no move towards Rags. She stared at him with helpless anger. With frustration. He looked at her. And smiled.
It was a cold smile, a quirking of the lips. Tyrion’s eyes never changed throughout. He stared at Rags, without pity or hatred. As if she were dust. He waited. Rags turned her head, saw the fleeing Redfang Warriors and the rest of her tribe running. She looked back at Tyrion, hesitated. He kept smiling. Then he spoke.
“You have an hour to run. Run quick, Goblin Chieftain.”
She eyed him. Tyrion’s gaze flicked to Pyrite, running with Redscar in his arms. Then to Rags’ face. No, she was the Chieftain. He was sure. There was something in her gaze. Rags looked at Tyrion, shifted her grip on her sword. She hesitated, as if debating trying for another attack. She shook her head and turned. Then she looked back and spat at Tyrion.
A glob of spit flew towards Tyrion’s face. He saw it coming and raised his shield perfunctorily. A sword tip flashed past the shield and flicked. The glob of spit splashed onto Lord Pellmia’s blade and he lowered his sword. Tyrion turned as Rags kicked her Carn Wolf and rode away.
“My thanks, Lord Pellmia. You needn’t have sullied your blade, though.”
“Nonsense. We cannot allow these lesser creatures to insult us.”
Lord Pellmia was flushed with a battle high and his sword and armor were bloody. Not from his own blood. His mount was practically steaming from exertion. Pellmia leaned down and ground the tip of his sword into the earth. Then he sat back upright and frowned at Rags’ retreating back. He turned and Tyrion saw that Pellmia had brought a host of mounted soldiers to ‘rescue’ him. Pellmia gestured at a group of [Archers] mounted on horses.
“Send a volley into the Goblin’s backs as a lesson!”
Tyrion countermanded the order, raising an open hand. Pellmia stared at him in shock. Tyrion smiled tightly.
“You might hit her.”
He nodded towards Rags, who was racing ahead to the front of the group. Pellmia blew out his mustache in amazement.
“Dead gods, Veltras! All this to save a single Goblin? Did you mean what you said about an hour’s head start? By Dragons, why would you do that?”
Tyrion wiped his sword with a cloth and then sheathed it. He spoke casually.
“That Goblin is important—at least for the moment. Kill a Chieftain and their tribe scatters to the winds. As for the hour’s reprieve—I thought it might amuse you.”
Pellmia’s eyebrows rose. Tyrion nodded. He smiled again. It had to be said that he was bad at smiling, at least as the activity was meant to reassure or uplift.
“You are by all accounts a sporting man, Lord Pellmia. What would you say to a wager? If you can corner the Goblins in two hours? Say—a thousand gold coins and two head of prime cattle on it?”
Lord Pellmia stared and then laughed. He looked around at the [Soldiers] on horseback, many of which looked tired and not in the mood for a chase.
“With this army? At dusk? Make it two thousand gold and a warhorse from your stable! Damn the cattle—I’ll provide the steak if I win or lose!”
“A deal, then.”
Tyrion took the gauntlet from his hands and shook Pellmia’s bare hand. The [Lords] grinned at one another and Tyrion’s tone became businesslike once more.
“Mind what I’ve told you about the Goblins.”
“Aye, I won’t forget. It’ll be harder keeping most of them alive. Well, a few hundred won’t matter, will it? Not for the bet. I’ll have to leave my son behind, though. He’s too hotheaded to avoid trying to kill the Goblins, never mind orders!”
Tyrion saw Pellmia point at an excited [Lord] wearing gold-leaf plate mail. He nodded.
“It seems he’s slain a few Goblins. A credit to you.”
“You say that without having met him! He’s not half the level I was when I was his age. Still—I hope to raise him at least to Level 20 before we finish this campaign. So, I’ve two hours to round up the Goblins, eh? Don’t you worry. I’ll have them running where you want by nightfall! And I’ll expect to be visiting your stables as soon as I head north! With a steak for your tables!”
Tyrion smiled as Lord Pellmia rode forwards, laughing and waving at the soldiers to follow him. He had to remind Pellmia to give the Goblins an hour’s head start first. Lord Pellmia sighed and rode back.
“I suppose we’ll have to have a late dinner of it, then. Will you be joining us, Veltras? I doubt there’s any good food to be had around here. My [Manservant] has [Advanced Cooking] and [Campfire Chef], though. He’ll make a good meal of it!”
Lord Tyrion shook his head.
“I must return to the main force shortly. I leave this matter in your capable hands, Lord Pellmia. And our bet.”
“Very well. And this Emperor Godart I’ve heard so much about? What if he complains about an army camping on his lands? And what should I do with his army? Let them go?”
“Do not concern yourself with this [Emperor]. I will deal with him before I leave; focus your attention on the Goblins. If any issue arises, do not hesitate to contact me. Our timing must be impeccable.”
He held Pellmia’s gaze. The [Lord] smiled.
“Over half the nobles in our war camp are still speculating about what you have planned, Veltras. I have an inkling. But I’ll keep that to myself for now. Your orders I’ll carry out. However, if you might indulge an old man?”
He was probably fifteen years older than Tyrion. Which would put him close to sixty years. Still, Pellmia looked like a young man as the evening light faded across his face. Tyrion paused reluctantly.
“How long have we? According to your schedule.”
Lord Tyrion Veltras paused. He weighed answering, and then replied, knowing that his response may well be circulated to those Pellmia considered his allies and possibly beyond that. But it was a calculated risk.
The [Lord]’s eyes gleamed.
“Fourteen days, eh? And then what?”
Pellmia never received an answer. Tyrion turned and turned his mount. He set a quick trot back towards Riverfarm. A small escort led by Jericha fell in behind him. Behind him, Pellmia laughed heartily and called for wine before he went to hunt the tribe down.
And the Goblins fled. From the mountain, away from the lands of Emperor Godart, in disarray, in defeat. Demoralized and broken. Reiss ran with his master’s words echoing in his mind, planning, trying to find victory amid another setback, another obstacle. Tremborag escaped, burning with rage, seething at his lost mountain. Afraid of the Kingslayer at his back. Garen rode, confused, angry, the words Greydath had spoken poking at his mind and conscience like hot needles.
And Rags? She turned in her saddle and looked back. She stared at the distant army of Humans, at the blood and death around the broken city. She thought of Laken, and looked at Redscar, nearly dead on the wagon they’d put him on. But alive. She thought of all that had passed, and she felt guilty and bitter and despairing. Her head drooped, and then rose. Rags straightened her back.
Beside her, Pyrite jogged to keep up, his fat body heaving with the effort. He was bleeding, and his expression was bleak. Rags’ tribe stumbled to keep moving. Again they were running. Again in defeat. But Rags kept her head high. Not because she felt good, or because she saw a silver lining in the clouds hanging over her. But because no one else was looking up. Because she was a Chieftain. She sat tall and moved on.
And her tribe followed. They marched after their Chieftain into the night, the little Goblin who kept urging them on. Who had dueled a [Lord] and spat in his face. Who had bested an [Emperor]. She would have won, of course. But the Humans had cheated. They always cheated. But the Goblins still called it victory. They cheered Rags as she rode past them, urging them to pick up the pace. They were hers. And she was theirs. Their little Goblin leader. The genius who had bested Redfang. A bit of hope.
[Chieftain Level 24!]
[Skill – Tribe: Rapid Reload obtained!]
[Skill – Flashfire Spellcraft obtained!]
[Spell – Burning Blades obtained!]